A devastated world

In the midst of a raging pandemic, with almost 100,000 people across the world being infected every day by the coronavirus and with the U.S. the worst affected country, the U.S. President has walked out of the WHO and cut off his country’s funding for it.

Published : Jun 16, 2020 07:00 IST

A cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, where COVID-19 victims are buried daily, a June 2 picture.

A cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, where COVID-19 victims are buried daily, a June 2 picture.

It has been five months since thenovel coronavirus started infecting humans. Within that short period, more than six million people around the world have caught the disease. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30. But despite the timely warning, by the first week of June, the global death toll from the virus had crossed 400,000.

The United States has not faced a pandemic of such devastating proportions since the 1918 “Spanish flu”. Despite being the richest and the most scientifically advanced country in the world, it has been the worst affected with the number of cases due to shortly cross the two-million mark. More than 100,000 Americans died due to the virus by the end of May. The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has projected between 10,000 and 30,000 American deaths before the end of June. The U.S. has since recorded one of the highest unemployment rates in its history, with nearly 40 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the pandemic will cost the U.S. economy $7.9 trillion over the next decade.

Other advanced capitalist nations such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France have also recorded a large number of coronavirus deaths. The world is currently witnessing almost 100,000 people being infected by the coronavirus every day.

More than half a million people in Brazil are affected, making it the second worst impacted country after the U.S. The numbers in India are showing an upward trajectory. It is now among the top 10 countries worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and has the greatest number of cases on the Asian continent. By early June, the infection rates were rising in most parts of the developing world, with Latin America becoming the new epicentre of the pandemic. Many experts believe that most governments have wilfully underestimated the true toll of the pandemic. The United Nations and the WHO issued an SOS in the last week of May calling for “global solidarity” in the fight against the pandemic.

It was at this critical juncture that the Trump administration chose to formally walk out of the WHO. President Donald Trump sent a letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in the last week of May announcing the decision. The Trump administration also announced that it was cutting off all funding to the organisation.

A sizeable chunk of the WHO’s funding, amounting to 15 per cent of its budget, came from the U.S. government. As it is, the WHO has been starved of funds, with many members not even bothering to pay their annual membership dues on time. Interestingly, during the height of the Cold War, the WHO was criticised for being overly dependent on the U.S. The organisation preferred U.S. medical expertise to that of the Soviet Union as it went about eradicating scourges such as small pox.

The war on small pox was a Soviet initiative, but the WHO selected U.S. scientists and doctors to spearhead the programmes to eliminate the disease. The WHO also preferred to use U.S.-made vaccines over Soviet ones in the fight against polio. The U.S. government was successful in influencing the WHO on the issue of drug pricing and patenting so as to ensure that the profits of the big pharmaceutical companies were not adversely impacted. Successive U.S. governments, including the current administration, worked closely with the WHO in Africa to prevent the Ebola epidemic from reaching U.S. shores. Even now, private donors from the U.S., such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies, continue to wield enormous influence on the functioning of the WHO.

Trump has been targeting the WHO after his dismal failure, in April, to prevent the spread of the virus within the U.S. While announcing his decision to quit the WHO, Trump made the claim in a White House press briefing that the organisation was acting under orders from China and had colluded with Beijing to cover up the seriousness of the threat posed to the U.S. and the world of what he described as the “Wuhan virus”. He once again alleged that the WHO had knowingly allowed the virus to escape from China and infect the rest of the world. “China has total control over the WHO,” Trump claimed and accused China of forcing the WHO “to mislead the world” about the virus.

“The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” Trump said. “Countless lives have been taken, and profound economic hardship has been inflicted all around the globe.” Despite there being no takers for the U.S. President’s allegations against the WHO, he has gone ahead and done the unthinkable. He will now have the dubious reputation of being the only head of state to turn his back on the WHO and its dedicated team of scientists and doctors in the midst of a raging pandemic. While announcing his decision, Trump made no mention of the early warning the WHO had issued to the international community. And, of course, there was no question of owning responsibility for his administration’s colossal failure that allowed the virus to spread like wildfire in the country and beyond its borders. Instead, Trump insisted that the world “needs answers from China”. A week before Trump made his decision, he wrote to the WHO Director-General demanding that the organisation “commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days”. The Trump administration did not publicise what its demands were and, for that matter, did not even wait for the one month’s notice period to lapse before making the decision to pull out.

The European Union (E.U.) urged the U.S. government to reconsider its decision. “In the face of this global threat, now is the time for enhanced cooperation and common solutions. Actions that weaken international results should be avoided,” a statement from the top leadership of the E.U. said. Germany and the U.K. also issued statements critical of Trump’s move. The British government clarified that it had no intention of withdrawing funding from the WHO.

Anders Nordstrom, a former WHO acting Director-General, said that the U.S. action would increase political tension at a time when “we need to have global solidarity”. South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize termed the decision as “unfortunate”. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman was more direct in his criticism. He said that the U.S. President was trying to mislead the American public, smear China and shift the blame for the U.S. government’s “own incompetent response”.

Criticism inside the U.S.

Within the U.S., even Trump’s Republican allies in the Congress were critical of his decision. Senator Lamar Alexander, Chair of the U.S. Senate Health Committee, said the move could hamper the discovery of a vaccine for COVID-19 and urged the White House in the “strongest terms possible” to reverse the decision. He said that this was not the time to look into the alleged failings of the WHO. The time to do so, he said, was “after the crisis had been dealt with not in the middle of it”. Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted that President’s decision “alienates our allies, undermines our global leadership, and threatens the health of the American people”.

This view was echoed by Dr Howard Koh, who was Assistant Secretary of State for Health in the Barack Obama administration. “The decision is really so short-sighted and ill-advised, and all it does is to put American lives at risk,” he said. Koh is currently a professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health. Dr Thomas Friedan, a former head of the CDC, noted that it was the U.S. that had played a key role in the creation of the WHO. “And we’re turning our back on it—we’re turning our backs on the world. That makes us less safe; it makes the world less safe,” Friedan said. Dr Thomas File, Jr, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, came out strongly against Trump’s move: “We will not succeed against this pandemic or any future outbreak unless we stand together, share information and coordinate action.”

Legality questionable

Constitutional experts in the U.S. are questioning the legality of the Trump’s decision. Most of them believe that the President needs the approval of the U.S. Congress to unilaterally leave a U.N. agency. “This is literally the whim of one man, without any consultation with Congress, in the middle of the greatest health emergency of our lifetime,” Lawrence O. Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre on Public Health Law & Human Rights at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., told The New York Times . Congress has the right to sue the President in a federal court on the issue, and there are indications it is shortly going to exercise that right.

Pretext to seal borders

Most governments around the world have used the pandemic as a pretext to seal their borders and stop the movement of refugees. The right of asylum has now ceased to exist worldwide for all practical purposes. The Trump administration has effectively used COVID-19 to implement its draconian immigration policies. Tens of thousands of people residing in the country for years but without the required paperwork have been deported, many of those deported from the U.S. to poor Central American countries were infected with the deadly virus.

President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala, a close ally of the U.S., complained that the Trump administration was sending “contaminated flights” to his country. The Haitian government said that five of its citizens recently deported from the U.S. in early May turned out to be COVID-19 positive. Haiti, the most impoverished country in the region, had reported 1,000 cases by the third week of May. With 4 per cent of the world’s population, the U.S. has recorded one third of the infections and deaths worldwide. It seems intent on spreading the virus in the region with its large-scale deportation policies. More than a thousand children have been deported to Mexico and neighbouring countries in the last couple of months.

At the same time, the U.S. did not think twice about announcing a ban on all commercial flights from Brazil in the last week of May, citing the coronavirus casualty figures in the country as a reason. International flights had anyway come to a virtual stop, but the Trump administration insisted on making an announcement singling out Brazil, the worst-affected country in Latin America. Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, because of their ideological proximity and evangelical Christian support base, have been downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic. But the Trump administration’s singling out of Brazil to impose a travel ban further dented Bolsonaro’s political credibility.

Both the leaders are enthusiastic promoters of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as treatment for the coronavirus. Medical experts and the WHO have cautioned coronavirus patients against using it. Trump and Bolsonaro are the only two prominent world leaders still refusing to wear a face mask in public. Bolsonaro, in fact, signed an executive order in May designating beauty salons and exercise gyms as “essential services” that need to reopen.

In the last couple of months, in the midst of the pandemic, two of Brazil’s Health Ministers had to demit office. One was sacked and the other chose to resign. Both of them disagreed with the Brazilian President’s insistence on treating the pandemic like the “common flu” and opening Brazil up for business even as the death rate was dramatically escalating. There are clear signs that another political upheaval is in the offing. Many of Bolsonaro’s close allies have deserted him. Many State Governors have defied his orders. Bolsonaro could become the first political casualty of the pandemic.

The U.S. is not the only country guilty of using the pandemic to trample on basic human rights. The E.U. too has been busy deporting asylum seekers and undocumented refugees. Hungary has barred all asylum seekers from stepping onto its territory on their way to more prosperous western Europe. The Hungarian government’s action goes against the basic tenets of the Geneva Convention. Greece and Malta are the other countries playing a big role in keeping “Fortress Europe” safe from refugees and victims of war from countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. The West played an important role in the destruction and devastation of these countries. Thousands of refugees have been intercepted in the waters of the Mediterranean and forcibly send back to Libya. The E.U. has trained and financed the Libyan coast guard.

In refugee camps around the world, which lack basic necessities like soap and running water, the virus has the potential to unleash death on an unprecedented scale. South Asian workers who reside in crowded workers’ dormitories in the Gulf have seen their jobs disappear and are being pushed out.

The rich Gulf countries too are feeling the economic pain the pandemic has caused. Developing countries are the worst affected. They were allowed to borrow money at low interest rates to finance developmental activities in the last decade, but now because of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, they have piled up humongous amounts of debt. According to the World Bank, middle- and low-income countries owe outside investors and foreign governments $2.1 trillion.

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